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Part of Phoenix: Back in Black

Not Command Material

Boston, Earth
July 2156
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Sawyer West was not a superstitious man, but if he cut himself shaving in the morning he knew it wasn’t going to be a good day. Today was an exception. Because Sawyer West knew it wasn’t going to be a good day the moment he got out of bed.

‘…I mean, who does this woman think she is?’ he complained as he dabbed tissue on his chin. ‘How does some wash-out who got her crew killed waltz in and take the next NX?’

‘I don’t know, honey,’ came his wife’s voice from the bedroom. Jennifer had long ago learnt her husband didn’t need logical engagement when he got like this. She’d tried debating the finer points of an angry issue on one occasion two months into their relationship, and the ensuing row gave them one golden rule: don’t expect Sawyer to be reasonable when he’s shaving. It was his chance to purge all bad thoughts and face the day brightly.

Normally.

‘The Sojourner was a disaster! What kind of idiot takes an Intrepid-class through the Mars asteroid belt when they’re already under fire? The Romulans knew she was there; she didn’t out-flank them, she just got herself blown up. That’s not command material!’

Silence met his complaint. West squinted at his reflection. ‘Sweetie?’

‘Wh- oh. Yeah, that sounds like someone’s messed up,’ came the guilty voice of a Jennifer West who knew she’d missed her cue.

‘This is Starfleet! We don’t mess up like this!’

Another silence. This had somehow gone off-script. Then, ‘Do you want me to put the waffles on?’

West groaned as he realised his wife had thrown in the towel. ‘Please,’ he called in a more strained voice, and kept his grumbling in his head while he finished shaving.

Once, his determination to always be neatly pressed, prepared, presented, had been an oddity in his job. The UESPA had been an organisation focused on exploration, each of them more scientist than officer, uniforms something for special occasions and ranks something which belonged on a hierarchy chart rather than everyday life. These days, in Starfleet, in war, West knew he looked like a soldier, and he didn’t much care for it. He was a big guy, broad and built, but that was about his health and his hobbies rather than being trained to hurt people. He kept his blond hair fastidiously tidy, and either clean shaven or with neatly trimmed facial hair because he wanted to look respectable. For his troubles this, along with a square jaw and bright eyes, helped give him the look of a Starfleet recruitment poster to boost wartime numbers.

Penny was at the breakfast table already when he got down, nose in a book as she shovelled in cereal. He tapped the top of her PADD as he pulled up a stool. ‘Hey, there’ll be time for that later.’

‘Dad -’

‘You know the rules. Meals as a family.’

‘Especially,’ said Jennifer as she concluded her battle with the waffle-maker about which sagas could be composed and performed, ‘as your father’s going away soon.’

West shrugged as he filled his mug from the coffee pot. ‘Well, we don’t know about that.’

That got Penny to put down the book and Jennifer to put the plates down hard. ‘What?’

He gave them a nonplussed look. ‘We’ll see how my meeting goes in San Fran. I was meant to XO for Chris Whittal. Who knows what this Lopez-woman wants.’

‘Or what you want.’ Jennifer narrowed her eyes. ‘Sawyer, don’t throw away a golden opportunity like this. Things change all the time, and they’ll keep changing through the war.’

‘You’re not going to the Phoenix?’ Penny looked crestfallen and confused. ‘Dad, you popped open champagne when you got the assignment.’

He hesitated. His enthusiasm had been so infectious he’d drawn twelve year-old Penny away from her fixation with natural Earth wildlife (she’d been on an Australasian kick lately; if it could kill you in ten seconds flat she thought it was the best thing ever) to start on some middle school-level astrophysics. It had been a nice change for her to show interest in his work. He attempted a smile. ‘You’re trying to get rid of me?’

‘Dad – of course not!’

She looked guilty and before that could make him feel guilty, Jennifer butted in. ‘You shouldn’t make any rash decisions, that’s all.’

‘Won’t it be useful if I’m not gone for months? Especially if you’ve got that big piece of legislative language to work on at the Palais -’

‘The kids will be at your mom’s while I’m in Paris, and if you miss this chance you’ll -’ Jennifer stopped herself.

West sat up. ‘I’ll what?’ Penny looked between them with big eyes, a spectator in the game of parents’ tennis.

But Jennifer lifted her hands. ‘Nothing. Speaking of the kids, Bruce still hasn’t come down. He’ll be late.’ She headed for the stairs.

‘Yeah, he was only just jumping in the shower when I came out,’ Penny called as Jennifer left. She toyed with her spoon when silence fell, then looked up at him. ‘Dad? What’s wrong with the ship?’

‘Nothing’s wrong with the ship. I just -’ West sighed. I just thought when Whittal died they’d give it to me. ‘I don’t like the new captain.’

‘Oh. What’d she say?’

‘What?’

‘I mean, she did something? Said something to you?’

‘I’ve not met her.’

Penny wrinkled her nose. ‘That doesn’t sound very fair, Dad.’

‘It’s not -’ Again, West stopped himself. ‘In Starfleet, people have records for a reason. Reputations. They’re important, because a lot of the time you’re working with people you’ve never met, so you have to learn what you can about them beforehand. So you can work together.’

‘So you don’t like her because of what other people say about her?’

‘Yes – no.’ He saw the trap she’d set, and didn’t quite avoid stepping in it. West sighed as he was outmanoeuvred by his precocious twelve year-old. ‘It’s complicated.’

‘Are you gonna meet her today?’

‘Yeah, she’ll be at the meeting.’

‘Then maybe you should see how it goes? I mean, you want this ship, Dad. You said it was going to be the finest ship ever, named after Doctor Cochrane’s. If I wanted something real bad, I wouldn’t let someone I didn’t like get in the way. Especially as I might like them if I gave them a chance. She probably thinks the ship is really cool, too. So you’ve got that in common.’

West’s shoulders sank as his daughter put her cereal bowl in the dishwasher and began to pack her schoolbag. ‘Okay,’ he said at last. ‘You win. I’ll give her a chance.’

‘I don’t win, Dad. You win.’ She dashed to his side and kissed him on the cheek. ‘I gotta get the shuttle. Say bye to Mom and Bruce for me. See you at dinner?’

Jennifer turned out to have been locked in a battle of wills to get Bruce out of the bathroom, dressed, and fed in time to catch his school shuttle, which took up most of the rest of the next half-hour. That had Jennifer rushing so she wouldn’t be late without them discussing his meeting again, so West was left with a heavy heart and no small amount of guilt when he finally eased onto his seat in the transit shuttle to take him whipping away from the dreary Boston skyline and across to San Francisco. He didn’t normally like making the round trip in a day, but if he was going to leave Earth soon, evenings with his family were precious.

Penny was right. He wanted this, he wanted the Phoenix. He had to give this a chance. Maybe he’d even like Lopez.

When he finally stepped into the conference room at Starfleet Headquarters hours later and found her with boots on the table, tapping ash from a cigar onto a PADD she’d converted to an ashtray, he realised that last part, at least, was never going to happen.

‘Sawyer West!’ She didn’t stand as protocol dictated, merely tipped her chair back and opened her arms in welcome. ‘In the flesh at last!’

As a point of petty principle, West came to full military attention. ‘Captain Lopez, ma’am.’

Lopez made a face. ‘Oh, hell no. No ma’am-ing around me, ever. Makes me feel like I’m fifty and in a knitting circle. Captain will do, sir if you really want to prance on ceremony. Sit down before you strain yourself, West.’ She gestured to the other woman in uniform. ‘You know Lieutenant Commander Black?’

‘By reputation,’ said West as he sat. Black, at least, looked like she’d rather be somewhere else. ‘I’m a great admirer of your father’s, Commander.’

‘Every suck-up is,’ said Lopez, sitting upright and tapping ash onto the PADD. ‘Not to say you’re a suck-up, West. But Helena’s not here because she’s Admiral Black’s daughter, she’s here because I need the best damn tactician I ever met as my second officer.’

‘I wasn’t implying -’

‘It’s fine, sir,’ said Black quickly.

West hesitated, then looked at Lopez. ‘I hadn’t realised personnel assignments were already arranged.’

‘Just this one. I thought that was what we could talk about today. That and meeting, so I could make a decision on confirming you as XO.’

That made him stop. ‘Confirm?’

Lopez shrugged. ‘Come on, West. We don’t know each other. Might be we hate each other and we’d be a terrible pair. And the Phoenix is my ship now and I get to make these kinds of essential choices, like who’s my XO. So tell me.’ She took a drag on her cigar. ‘Why should it be you?’

He’d been unsure if he’d take the offer. He’d wondered if he’d be asked to stay on by Lopez, or if Admiral Gardner would quietly take him aside and say that Starfleet Command would feel better if he stuck it out, kept an eye on her. He hadn’t expected to fight for it. His jaw tensed. ‘First, I’ve a Masters’ degree in Astrophysics from Princeton. Three years with the UESPA analysing the results of the Ferris Deep Space Probe. Then Starfleet, twelve years as a Science Officer on starships, five of those as the Opportunity’s XO. And the last eighteen months here at Starfleet Command on Fleet Admiral Hathaway’s staff with her recommendation -’

‘I can read, West.’ Lopez lifted a hand. ‘I didn’t ask for your record.’

He stiffened. ‘My record is why I should be XO.’

‘No, your record was you taking a chance to drop Fleet Admiral Hathaway’s recommendation and also mention you went to Princeton. I don’t know why I should care you went to Princeton while the Romulans are trying to kill us, but you obviously care.’ Lopez tilted her head this way and that. ‘Seeing as you care, you should know I only have a bachelor’s in Astrophysics. But it’s from Stanford. Who’re higher rated in Astrophysics than Princeton. I should know, they offered me a place.’

‘I think the point,’ blurted Black, ‘is that if we’re going to be a team, we need to know about each other personally -’

‘I was only answering the question I was asked,’ West said tensely.

‘No.’ Lopez jabbed her cigar at him. ‘You’re mad that I got the Phoenix. You don’t think I should. And you wanted to throw your “darling of Starfleet” credentials around. So can we try this again without the bull?’

He sat up. ‘No,’ said Sawyer West at length. ‘Because you’re right. I don’t think you should have the Phoenix. I don’t think you should be given any ship. I think you tried a ridiculous act of daring-do in the Battle of Sol, outflanking the Romulans and trying to play hero, and when it didn’t work it just got people killed and lost us a good ship. I don’t know who you conned to get the Phoenix, but I don’t trust why you’re here and I don’t trust you. And I meant what I said about every one of my credentials as a good member of Starfleet, a respectable member of Starfleet; they mean I should be XO because, frankly, without me your command is a joke.’ He sat back slowly. ‘Sir.’

And that was it. He’d have to go home and have a complicated conversation with his pre-teen daughter about why he couldn’t go on his dream assignment because his captain was a little mean to him and he’d been mean back. West’s journey of personal morality had been, he reflected, a lot less complicated before he had to explain good behaviour to his kids.

Then Lopez laughed, and West stared. ‘Oh good! Good, he yelled at me.’ She looked at Black. ‘You’re buying at the bar tonight.’

‘That’s not fair!’ said Helena Black. ‘You were just a complete ass, Nat -’

‘I didn’t say he’d just come in and yell at me for no reason! Of course I provoked him -’

Excuse me.’ West planted his hands on the table. ‘This was a joke?’

Lopez looked back like she’d just remembered he was here. ‘Of course not. Deadly serious. I can read your record ‘til the cows come home, Sawyer West, but that’s not going to tell me if we can work together. Then I gave you a lot of flak, including about being a Starfleet golden pretty boy – which, let’s face it, you are – and if that’s all you were, I reckon you’d have begged off the assignment and gone crying to Gardner.’

West stared at her. ‘You wanted to know if I’d fight you.’

‘Yeah.’ Lopez puffed on her cigar. ‘I don’t trust someone I can’t disagree with, as a rule. So I pushed, and you were right to push back. You were right about something else, too.’ She tapped her cigar against the PADD. ‘I do need your respectability.’

He flushed. ‘I didn’t -’

‘You’re not the only one to think I’m a joke. That the Phoenix will be a joke under my command. And anyone who says they’re not going to play politics in Starfleet will be played by those politics. Throughout this assignment we’re going to need choice missions, crew, resources. I won’t have the Phoenix be the armpit of the Fleet, last in everything.’ She pointed at him with her cigar. ‘That’s where you come in. Experienced scientist who’s been around the houses a few time. Staffer to Hathaway.’

West cocked his head. ‘You’re not going to use Commander Black’s name?’

‘Oh, sure,’ said Lopez. ‘But what people will give me because my second officer’s Admiral Black’s daughter and what they’ll give you because you’re Sawyer West aren’t the same.’

‘Yeah,’ said Black in a slightly flat voice. ‘We all have our part to play.’

Lopez looked back at her. ‘Do I need to hire a shuttle to write Best Damn Tactical Officer in the sky for you before you hear that bit?’

‘I, uh, actually agree, Commander,’ said West. ‘I’ve seen your record. While your strategic analyses have been invaluable, we need people like you on the front line.’

‘There. See? Our first agreement.’ Lopez smirked. ‘Hopefully first of many. I’ve got ambitions for the Phoenix, Commander. I know our personnel options are limited, because there’s so little lee-way in the current fleet. Everyone’s stretched so thin that nobody wants to give up a talented officer who’s doing a great and desperately-needed job where they are. Even for an NX-class. Especially for my NX-class. So we’re going to have to cobble together a senior staff out of whoever we can beg, borrow, or steal.’ She tossed him a PADD – not, thankfully, the one she’d used as an ashtray. ‘I put together some names.’

West read it. ‘Hawthorne’s a development researcher, he doesn’t run an engine room.’

‘Yeah, you try to crowbar a qualified Chief Engineer out of someone right now. He’s qualified.’

‘Ensign Antar’s just been demoted!’

‘And it looks like she deserved it,’ Lopez agreed. ‘Crew discipline is an XO’s responsibility.’

‘I like the look of Doctor Kayode…’

‘Also no real experience in sickbay, but they did their residency with an expert in disaster medicine so they might grow into the role.’

‘And Major Stavros was always going to run the MACO division,’ West said. ‘I’ve met her; she’s very good, very professional.’

‘Sure – I never had much to do with MACOs, to be honest.’

Then West stopped. ‘Absolutely not.’

Lopez looked at Black. ‘I trash Princeton, and this is where he draws the line?’

Black grimaced. ‘You have to admit, Lieutenant Takahashi -’

‘Takahashi Riku isn’t a lieutenant,’ West snapped. ‘He left the service.’

‘He will be a lieutenant when I reinstate him,’ said Lopez. ‘He’s a brilliant linguist, and he’s spent the last five years on a light cargo ship bouncing between the colonies. Not many people know the borders like him, not many people can talk to people him. He might not be a trained diplomat, but if we have to talk our way through trouble it’ll be a victory of charm, not etiquette.’

‘He shot a man.’

Lopez hesitated. ‘He did. That happened. But I need a Comms Officer. And Tak’s more than qualified for the job. So let me make this clear: I’m the Captain. I want Takahashi Riku. I get Takahashi Riku.’

West frowned. ‘I thought you said you want me to argue with you.’

‘That’s more theoretical – I want you to be able to argue with me…’ She cocked her head. ‘Is this the line in the sand?’

That’s a trap,’ he said, lifting a finger. ‘You’re testing me with a false ultimatum. Obviously I won’t throw away a career-changing post over one misbehaving officer. But I want it noted in your records that I protested his assignment.’

‘What, so when this all goes wrong you’re not tarred with my brush?’ She gave a lopsided grin. ‘I respect that.’

‘If you want me here so my squeaky-clean reputation keeps relations with Command smooth, I have to keep that reputation,’ West countered.

‘Then I have a question for you, Commander West. What’s the difference between a captain and a first officer?’

West frowned. ‘Is this another trap? Pointing out that yours is the supreme authority aboard? Because I’m not debating that.’

She looked sidelong at Black, who kept her long-suffering poker face, and shrugged. ‘Something to reflect on, Commander.’ Lopez stubbed out the cigar on the ruined PADD and stood, sticking her hand out. ‘In the meantime, I look forward to working together.’

He considered his options. Then stood and shook her hand. ‘I look forward to more arguments.’

‘And if you’re very good, Commander,’ said Lopez with an impish grin, ‘you might just win some.’